China’s first mainstream science-fiction film, “The Wandering Earth,” has surpassed “Operation Red Sea” to become the country’s second-highest-grossing movie of all time, with $679 million at the local box office and counting. “Crazy Alien,” another title released during last month’s competitive Chinese New Year period, has raked in $327 million domestically. Two more sci-fi movies are in the pipeline for release later this year.
Together, the films are charting a course for a previously nonexistent genre in the Middle Kingdom and are inspiring immense pride in rapt Chinese viewers. Although the country is home to a world-renowned sci-fi writer (Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin) and a burgeoning fan base, such domestically made sci-fi movies have exploded onto the scene only now that local production budgets and technical know-how can realize them.
Whether these blockbusters can blast off beyond China remains in doubt, however. Insiders say their popularity is more a sign of China’s growing cultural confidence than proof of a work of international quality and potential. But the Chinese market is so vast that the films can achieve huge financial success solely at home.
“The Wandering Earth” now ranks behind only “Wolf Warrior 2” as China’s all-time box office champ. Adapted from a novella by Liu, the godfather of Chinese sci-fi, the futuristic epic tells the story of people working to save the world from the imploding sun by propelling Earth into another solar system.
Another of Liu’s works provided the basis for “Crazy Alien,” a comedy about a zookeeper who discovers an extraterrestrial. “Shanghai Fortress,” which sees the city holding out against an alien attack, and “Pathfinder,” about a crew of space pioneers who crash-land on another planet, are expected later this year.
“The Wandering Earth” has struck a special chord, garnering near-perfect ratings on key user-review platforms. Proud that their still-maturing industry could produce such an ambitious film, reviewers were eager to forgive its flaws and thrilled to see familiar details like Chinese school uniforms and iconic buildings that place the story squarely in the Middle Kingdom.
“For Chinese audiences, watching ‘The Wandering Earth’ is far and away more meaningful than watching a flawless foreign blockbuster,” declared the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
Such warm feelings of identification and patriotism can translate into cold, hard numbers. Fox’s sci-fi offering “Alita: Battle Angel” is projected to take in a mere 20% of the expected gross of “The Wandering Earth,” despite being technologically slicker. China’s two other top-grossing films of all time, action films “Wolf Warrior 2” ($854 million) and “Operation Red Sea” ($576 million), are both extremely nationalistic in tone.
“For a film to surpass the first one or two billion RMB [$150 million to $300 million] in ticket sales in China, there’s got to be some sort of other emotional hook besides just the subject matter itself that can reel in people,” says independent critic Yu Yaqin. “It comes down to pride in one’s country.”
Richer than ever and more prominent on the world stage, China now has the confidence to envision itself going toe to toe with the U.S. “There’s very little that’s particularly unique about ‘The Wandering Earth,’ but for many Chinese people, it’s quite important that we made a film in a genre that typically only Americans have been really good at,” Yu says.
No American characters are featured in the movie, and the language of world government is French. The film has nevertheless been praised for being less heavy-handedly political than other Chinese blockbusters. It was recently acquired by Netflix and is playing in select cities in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where it has collectively grossed about $6 million.
Nathan Hao, CEO of distributor Times Vision, says Chinese sci-fi films might have a better shot overseas than other types of movies, thanks to the common language of a genre that’s recognizable the world over. But he passed on the chance to take “The Wandering Earth” on the road.
“Chinese sci-fi is capable of attracting audiences abroad,” he adds, “but I don’t think it’ll happen in the short term.”
It remains difficult for a non-English-language film of any caliber to break into the global mainstream. While Chinese art-house movies have earned international recognition, winning awards at top festivals, critics feel it may be a long time before a big-budget foreign blockbuster can match its U.S. peers. EuropaCorp’s expensive sci-fi gamble “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a prime example of a non-Hollywood sci-fi film that failed to pay off globally.
For now, it seems more probable for Chinese films to travel via companies investing and participating in international productions, Yu says. But she adds that China shouldn’t get trapped into feeling that a work is successful only if recognized by foreigners. “Chinese films don’t necessarily have to chase after the goal of being fully understood by Western audiences,” she says. “You don’t have to be global to be good.”